Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you’re putting out a movie you actually want audiences to see, don’t make “Despite” the first word of the title. “Despite the Falling Snow” is a phrase that barely sticks in the mind for the time it takes to read it; given that the movie wants to be a Cold War romantic espionage thriller, you can imagine a hundred titles that would be more alluring. Yet here’s one case where the tone deaf-ness is far from incidental. The picture was written and directed by the British author Shamim Sarif, adapting her novel of the same name (as she has done twice before, with “The World Unseen” and “I Can’t Think Straight”), and it’s the kind of dud in which the bad decisions pile up as you watch. If the movie had been called “Casablanca” or “Notorious,” it’s still doubtful that a lot of people would want to see it. Given that it’s called “Despite the Falling Snow,” divide that teensy audience by about one-half.
The movie has a surface similarity to “Allied,” last year’s Brad Pitt-Marion Cotillard World War II thriller, because it’s yet another story of an agent who marries one of the enemy to advance her cause. The agent, in this case, is Katya Krinkova (played by the vibrant Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson), a secret dissident in Soviet Russia whose parents were killed by Stalin’s goons when she was just a girl. She is now a spy working for the Americans, and the cell she belongs to has targeted Alexander Ivanov, a.k.a. Sasha (Sam Reid). He’s supposed to be the film’s romantic hero, but he is, in fact, a Soviet bureaucrat of such mealy sweet ineffectuality that his title is “senior assistant to the third deputy minister of foreign affairs.” (He would probably think that “Despite the Falling Snow” is a good title.)
When a film’s basic strategy is to cut between the past and the present, it should create ripples of anticipatory tension. But “Despite the Falling Snow” is one of those movies in which the cross-cutting keeps destroying all mood and momentum — it feels more like channel-surfing. Half the film follows Katya and Sasha’s courtship in Moscow in 1960 and ’61, culminating in the fateful moment when Sasha defects to the United States, leaving Katya tragically behind. The other half is set in what feels like “the present day” — that is, 1992, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the aging Sasha, now played by Charles Dance as a successful but haunted New York businessman, watches as his artist niece goes to Moscow to learn what happened to Katya all those years ago.
Ferguson, in a short blondish wig, plays the niece, too, a gambit that seems like it should mean something but doesn’t. Yet it certainly shows off what a versatile actress Ferguson is. As Lauren, she’s perky and liberated and slightly bratty, especially when she comes on to a high-ranking Russian journalist (Antje Traue). But she makes Katya a gravely sensual figure, with shades of Geneviève Bujold or Emily Watson, lost in the dream-killing melancholy of the old Soviet Union.
The most confounding failure of “Despite the Falling Snow” is how it portrays the central ambiguity of the love story. Katya has been assigned by Misha (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the swarthy leader of her cell, to get romantically involved with Sasha. The two meet and flirt at a party in 1959, but she’s just playing along. Then she’s touched by his ideological idealism, though she’s still not in love with him (and why would she be remotely sympathetic to his belief in a regime that’s still rigid in its brutality?). Then, suddenly, she loves him. And then she really loves him. We know because she keeps saying it, but Sarif doesn’t develop the relationship convincingly — it’s like watching freeze-dried old movie passion that someone forgot to add water to.
Russia, as a subject, has been coming up in the world of entertainment (it started with the launch of “The Americans” on FX four years ago), and one could now easily envision Russia becoming a vast new landscape of 21st-century dramatic interface. Putin and Trump. Edward Snowden and Pussy Riot. The twin scandals of fake news and the election hacking. The old Cold War meets the new Cold War. It’s heady and fertile terrain — for journalistic docudrama, for spy-vs.-cyber-spy suspense. But “Despite the Falling Snow,” which is at once overreaching and threadbare, busy and tedious, is like a hastily scrawled sketch for the movies to come.